Providing patient-centered care is a point of pride for any health service organization. That is certainly true at Armstrong Center for Medicine and Health (ACMH)and Indiana Regional Medical Center (IRMC), both of which provide high-quality cancer care right in the proverbial backyards of Armstrong and Indiana county residents.

Receiving a diagnosis of cancer is frightening. There is a great sense of unknown for patients as they navigate through various courses of treatment. The anxiety and uncertainty can be exacerbated if patients have to travel for their care, explains Michelle Wilson, the clinical research/special projects coordinator and nurse navigator at ACMH’s Richard G. Laube Cancer Center.

Wilson notes the cancer center at ACMH is the only comprehensive cancer center within a 22-mile radius. IRMC is 41 miles southeast.

“This allows patients to receive their care at home,” Wilson says. “This is one of our great missions.”

The cancer center specializes in medical and radiation oncology treatments. In 2018, the hospital added a linear accelerator which provides an even more efficient treatment to cancer patients due to greater precision. The hospital also uses Intensity Modulated Radiation Therapy, which provides a greater targeting of cancer cells with fewer toxicity concerns.

While those are specialties, ACMH provides treatment options for almost any kind of cancer; in fact, the facility has access to clinical trials, meaning some patients could take part in studies of cutting-edge medications that have yet to be approved, Wilson says.

“We want to help cure or stop the progression of cancer,” she adds.

The cancer center at ACMH has been bolstered with the “best surgical options, chemo options, radiation therapies, immunotherapies and clinical trials,” Wilson says. She notes the hospital is capable of conducting genetic counseling as part of diagnostics efforts for different tumor types, and can provide a wide range of assistance for patients.

A key to comprehensive treatment plans at the Laube Cancer Center are tumor board discussions. Each patient case is examined by multiple physicians, oncologists and surgeons to determine the best care program. The cancer center follows all national guidelines and the standards found at any large cancer center in the country.

Dr. Jackie Guerriero, a breast cancer surgeon at ACMH, stresses the importance of those aspects.

“It’s important our patients know they can get all of their care in one place, and it’s also important that they know all of their physicians communicate with each. From a treatment standpoint, it’s beneficial because we’re all on one page and it’s convenient for them to only have to go to one place,” Guerriero says.

Building a cancer center that provides all the services most cancer patients need was important for the hospital because of how crucial that is for patients. Time after time, Wilson says, patients tell her how happy they are they do not have to travel to Pittsburgh or another city to undergo treatment. Patients are relieved they can stay close to home and their own personal support networks while the receive care that is frequently physically and emotionally taxing. At ACMH, they see the same physicians and nurses when they come, which creates an important sense of familiarity and community.

“The patients here are a name and not a number,” says Wilson. “It feels like a family. Many of them bring us baked goods or crafts they make, which is positive feedback for what we’re doing.”

That sense of community is one the cancer center takes seriously. The hospital regularly reaches out to the general public at health fairs and other events. There, they can discuss cancer screenings, educational programs and support programs for patients, Wilson says.

The hospital conducts a free skin cancer screening in May, and in October dedicates a full week to breast cancer. The latter is the type of cancer most seen at ACMH, which during that week the hospital provides information about screening services.

Wilson points to the breast care center as another point of pride for the community. The center provides care for all breast patients, not just those battling breast cancer, Guerriero explains. The center provides comprehensive care for patients with concerns about the breast. Like the cancer center as a whole, the breast care center is also patient focused, Guerriero says. The caregivers at ACMH want to ensure patients receive the best care as quickly as possible.

“It’s a patient-centered process as they try to navigate the patients through the treatment process, whatever that may be,” she adds.

Oncology Expertise

Forty-one miles southeast of ACMH in Indiana is IRMC, home to the IRMC Cancer Center in partnership with UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. Patients undergoing cancer treatment here are receiving radiation therapy in the world’s first temporary and mobile radiation oncology unit.

Alliance Oncology, a division of Alliance HealthCare Services Inc., worked closely with the UPMC Hillman and IRMC teams to develop the mobile unit so patients can continue treatment uninterrupted and remain close to home. If not for the external unit, patients would have to travel for treatment to UPMC Cancer Centers in Altoona, Johnstown (John P. Murtha), Greensburg (Arnold Palmer) or Pittsburgh (East).

“The only other alternative was to close the department and send patients to other locations,” says IRMC Chief Operating Officer Dominic Paccapaniccia. “This would have left the department closed for at least three months.

“Our radiation therapy patients have consecutive treatments, often on a daily basis for several weeks, and traveling to another facility nearly an hour away would be a hardship. Knowing that the world’s first temporary radiation unit is being used right here is testament to the creativity of UPMC and the type of care that IRMC provides in our community.”

The mobile unit features Alliance Oncology’s Interim Radiation Therapy Solution state-of-the-art Varian Halcyon radiotherapy technology, which can be moved to other health systems or cancer centers as needed in the future. The Halcyon is the first machine of its kind to be placed in a temporary setting anywhere in the world.

“With successful operations of this machine, it opens up opportunities to other communities across not only the United States but in other countries that are unable to afford these services,” Paccapaniccia says. “We are setting the stage for this to happen. It is truly exciting.”

The external temporary vault construction began Nov. 11, 2019 and the truck arrived on Dec. 5 after driving across the United States. It is located adjacent to the cancer center building.

“An education took place with the construction workers in the building and hospital employees,” Paccapaniccia says. “A fence was placed around the area to keep the public out of the area and safe.”

The vault is made up of 300 concrete blocks that weigh about two tons each, and features 6-inch-thick steel plates that prevent radiation exposure outside of the unit.

“All of these items were put in place to limit the radiation exposure to others,” Paccapaniccia adds.

The IRMC Cancer Center in partnership with UPMC Hillman Cancer Center is in the midst of a major renovation and expansion project that includes updates to the radiation oncology and medical oncology units. The $12 million project began in November 2018 and is expected to be completed in June 2020.

The project includes increasing the size of treatment and exam rooms; incorporating the latest radiation oncology machines including a linear accelerator; adding a fixed PET/CT scanner and updating the EMR; and opening a specialty pharmacy at which personalized medications will be readily prepared for patients. Hospital officials say the end result will be a better patient experience.

Work will conclude this summer with the installation of a new Varian True Beam machine.

The partnership between IRMC and UPMC, forged in July 2018, will join medical and radiation oncology services as a single comprehensive cancer center. The hospital will house the region’s only National Cancer Institute-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center, providing patients access to the latest personalized medical and radiation treatments and technologies, and access to all UPMC breakthrough clinical trials.

“We strive to provide a comfortable and convenient experience for our patients who are undergoing cancer treatment,” says Stephanie Dutton, vice president and chief operating officer of UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. “We also want to ensure that we are able to provide the same high-quality care that patients expect to receive from UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. We believe this new partnership at IRMC will achieve those expectations and more.”